Review of Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic
Curtis D. Carbonell. Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic. Liverpool UP, 2019. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Hardback. 256 pgs. ISBN 9781789620573. $120.00.
Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic contributes to a growing body of interest in game studies and adds to Liverpool’s UP’s substantial series on science fiction and fantasy criticism by including a work exploring tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs). Several recent works in game studies have offered examinations of role-playing games including José P. Zagal’s and Sebastian Deterding’s edited collection, Role-Playing Game Studies Transmedia Foundations (2018), and Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift: how Role-Playing Games Forged their Identity (2020). Dread Trident distinguishes itself in its specific focus on TRPGS (as opposed to digital games) and its exploration of them through the literary and cultural aspects they draw on from science fiction and fantasy literature in their realized worlds, adding critical exploration to a range of gametexts and their universes. Carbonell’s focus on written gametexts as archives of popular culture makes a significant contribution to this still underrepresented area of academic study, especially in its examination of them through the lenses of the modern fantastic and trans/posthumanism to draw academic attention to the spaces for creative world/character building and game-play experience through the gametexts and modes of embodied play.
Carbonell examines six popular TRPGs through literary and cultural studies approaches to their hybrid modes of gameplay that engage both digital and analogue elements. A central aim of Dread Trident is to explore how our understanding of the modern fantastic is expanded through theorizing gametexts as foundational mechanisms that give rise to realized worlds through their settings, forms of gameplay, and mechanics. Carbonell concentrates his analysis on analogue gametexts and their combinations of draconic (fantastic) and post/transhuman (science fictional) genre tropes to argue that they provide a means of mediating the technologized existence of modern reality through the embodied gameplay. Carbonell weaves this hybridity into his analysis by positing a “draconic-posthuman figure” that he argues is essential to contextualize the modern fantastic (18). By engaging with posthumanist modes of thought, Carbonell suggests that these realized fantastic worlds are built through complex hybrid combinations of digital and analogue tools, enacting, a “process of posthumanization” that directs attention to the “spaces in which subjects emerge” (3). Dread Trident’s extensive study of analogue games makes a compelling argument for the significance of gametexts and their tools for putting the modern fantastic into context with our contemporary, highly technologized ways of being in the world by creating complex spaces where these fantastic and posthuman subjectivities can develop and exist.
Dread Trident is structured in the form of case-studies where each chapter focuses on one modern game system or gametext, placing these gametexts/series alongside works of fiction and broader genre and pulp movements in modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror in order to contextualize the draconic and posthuman elements that emerge through engaged play in the game-worlds. Carbonell examines several well-known TRPG games/game series spanning fantasy, science fiction, weird, science fantasy, and horror genres including Eclipse Phase (2009), Dungeons & Dragons (1974-present), World of Darkness (1991-2006), Call of Cthulhu (1981-2014), Warhammer 40000 (1987-Present), and Numenera (2013) to ask, “what do TRPG gametexts and tools reveal in their clarification of the modern fantastic?” (51). For Carbonell, the answer is that these games offer a space where the self might be fashioned through the spaces created by their embodied gameplay and their combinations of analogue and digital game tools.
Those approaching Dread Trident from the perspective of genre theory may take issue with Carbonell’s elision of fantasy and science fiction into opposite poles of a shared umbrella of the modern fantastic—a fact that he acknowledges. However, Carbonell’s use of gametext archives in Dread Trident enables him to observe the generic shifts in the fantastic occurring in games through many editions and settings over time, including recognizing the way that both draconic and posthuman elements manifest across games occupying different genre categories. An example of this is in his chapter “Worlds of Darkness” where he traces the use of reimagined Gothic tropes from the original World of Darkness (WoD) game settings of the 1990s, Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) and Werewolf: The Apocalypse (1992), to the Weird tropes of the more recent edition of WoD, Chronicles of Darkness (2015), which focuses game exploration on uncovering truths about the hidden and indescribable God-Machine entity. Carbonell contends that this movement offers an example of the Gothic transitioning into cosmic horror and supports his argument for increased attention to TRPG texts by offering a means of examining them for their reflection of changing representations of tropes and fantasy/horror/science fiction features through their archive of gametext editions.
Carbonell’s case studies demonstrate a great depth of knowledge of the gametexts and the archives of tools, manuals, content, and fan contributions that have become parts of these fantasy, horror, science fiction, and weird TRPG worlds. His critical examination of the multiple elements of the gametexts in their structure, imagined realities, mechanics, and engagement of players makes a convincing case for them as valid objects of academic attention, especially in their interconnections and contributions to literary and popular culture. A few of Dread Trident’s chapters also include discussions of literary works including Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix stories, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Carbonell dedicates an entire chapter to examining the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in the Call of Cthulhu TRPG game series in terms of both the Mythos crossing from a literary world into a gametext and Lovecraft’s materialism and impulse to categorize in rich description—an impulse which Carbonell argues is also reflected in early TRPGs. While these chapters that combine analyses of gametexts with works of science fiction and fantasy literature help establish the connections and differences between the approaches to and realization of worlds in the literary fantastic and TRPG gametexts, they are successful to varying degrees. Dread Trident’s chapter on Eclipse Phase balances a pairing of it with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix stories to facilitate further understanding of the latter’s genre-blurring of the draconic/fantasy aspects with those of the posthuman through Sterling’s posthuman embodiments. This blending results in the advanced technology in the game operating “in the same manner as the marvelous in fantasy roleplaying games” (71), thus creating a space for the emergence of imagined post/transhuman subjectivities under the myth of living in a singularity future. However, Carbonell’s chapter examining Numenera alongside works by China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, Gary Wolfe, Thomas Ligotti, and HBO’s first season of True Detective lacks the same coherency in its focus.The chapter offers insightful ideas about each of these works and their rich and complicated settings’ relationships to the fantastic—especially the evolution of the weird and new weird—but so much is packed into the chapter that it lacks the clarity and cohesion of other chapter in the monograph and would have benefitted from greater critical attention to Numenera itself.
One of the most effective chapters in Dread Trident is Carbonell’s chapter on Dungeons & Dragons’ multiverse, which focuses its attention on the large archive of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) gametext editions and settings as well as how that multiverse of shared world expands through fan-created materials and the inclusion of digital media and game tools. This chapter also demonstrates Carbonell’s extensive knowledge of the game’s archival history as he traces its evolution from its earliest editions into an assemblage multiverse where the current 5th edition “encourages new forms of entertainment beyond those found in the sourcebooks” (107). Further discussions of multiple media forms in the subsequent chapter on the World of Darkness series discussing the success of Vampire: The Masquerade and its spin-off video game, television show, graphic novels, collectible cards, and fan-created content help highlight the significant—and often overlooked—influence that TRPGs are having on the fantastic across diverse types of media and in shaping fan communities. Carbonell’s recognition of these areas of cross-pollination between TRPGs and other media opens a space for further examinations on the flow of creative content across fan, popular culture, and creator communities in game studies, as well as expanded work on the effects of hybrid tools on TRPG styles of play, experience, and world creation. The presentation of the interconnections of science fiction and fantasy as two poles of the modern fantastic and the genre blurring that occurs within many of these TRPG gametexts and their realized spaces also speaks to the benefits of including role-playing games in academic studies of the fantastic, something that will hopefully increase in prevalence as the diversity and influence of these TRPG games continues to expand.
Overall, Dread Trident offers a theoretically rigorous and informative exploration of its focal gametexts and the use of game archives to critically explore how the modern fantastic as a genre evolves in them over time. Carbonell’s approach to theorizing these gametexts as using digital and analogue tools to generate realized worlds which “encourage creativity and agency for the broadest number of persons, as well as the expansion of these fantasy spaces across a variety of platforms” (29) is innovative and compelling.
Dread Trident is best suited to more advanced levels of study and those working specifically in genre studies, popular culture, and game studies due to the complexity of the literary and cultural theories involved in approaching the different case studies including theories of genre, trans- and posthumanism, and embodiment. The arguments regarding embodied space in these realized worlds and the combinations of posthuman with draconic tropes in these games also makes it of interest to those working in posthuman studies. While Dread Trident would have benefitted from more attention to laying out the direction and reasoning behind each chapter to better connect its many arguments, it does make an effective case for TRPGs as objects of academic study within SF/F studies, especially in Carbonell’s applications of genre and posthuman theory to tabletop role-playing gametexts and tools and the imaginary spaces they create. Carbonell’s monograph offers those working in game studies an informative scholarly examination of several iconic TRPGs, and it will hopefully be joined by many future works drawing academic attention to the growing diversity, depth of content, and creative spaces emerging from the TRPG community.
Clare Wall is a Toronto-based educator and independent scholar. She holds a PhD from York University in English Literature. Her research interests include contemporary posthuman climate fiction, nonhuman agencies, and ecologies of the future. Her academic writing appears in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus (2014) and the forthcoming anthology Interrogating the Boundaries of the Nonhuman: Literature, Climate Change, and Environmental Crises (2022). Clare’s creative contributions appear in the cyberpunk role-playing game expansion The Veil: Cascade (2018).